For three years, Samawi (Sam) Al Helli interpreted Arabic for the United States Marines in his native country of Iraq. Today, he is earning his second master’s degree in computer science, with plans to graduate in May 2017.
When the Iraqi Civil War started in 2006, Al Helli bravely decided to stay in his homeland and become a combat interpreter and security adviser for the Marines through a company called Global Linguist Solutions. As a Muslim, he and his family were forced to leave their home by al-Qaeda extremists, displaced like many other Iraqis especially in Baghdad. Their house was later burned down by extremists. Al Helli’s father — a businessman, tribal leader and his inspiration — was barely able to feed his large family. “I could have abused my position as a Marine interpreter to get revenge,” he said. “But I believe that you must treat people the way you want to be treated. That’s the only way to end the cycle of violence.
Al Helli also used this philosophy in his initial interactions with Americans. “When I began talking with American soldiers, I realized they were people like me trying to make a better life for themselves,” he said. To earn the trust of the Marines, he chose to volunteer to be on the front lines with them in combat situations. The Marines called him “Devil Terp” and “Big Sam,” and they watched out for each other.
“During my time with the U.S. Marines, I played a critical role in saving hundreds of Marines and Iraqi civilians, and assisted in capturing more than 100 terrorists and their weapons caches,” he said. “To this day, my best friends are Marines — the friendships you make at war last forever.”
A U.S Marine Major helped Al Helli enter the United States as a resident through the Special Immigrant Visa program, and he first lived in Chicago with another Marine he’d worked with in Iraq in 2007. “I was born in Baghdad, but I grew up with the Marines,” he said. Al Helli started working with the Marines when he was 18 years old, and will become a U.S. citizen in 2017.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Al Helli believes Iraq has become a better country in some ways. He pointed out the country’s free speech and free press, growing middle class and democratic elections, but Iraq and Iraqis still have many challenges to overcome and a long journey to take. “There’s now a hope for a better future, something we didn’t have before,” he said
The 29-year-old Al Helli, whose native language is Arabic, learned English by listening to American rock, metal and heavy metal music. After moving to Chicago in 2012, he chose Roosevelt because he was impressed with the University’s founding principles, social justice mission, academic reputation, environmentally efficient Wabash Building, and its modern business and computer science programs.
While earning his MBA at Roosevelt (’14), he took a two-week international negotiation course at La Sorbonne University in Paris. While there, he learned how business in France is different from that in the United States and Europe. “For example,” he said, “in a retail store the customer must take the initiative to approach the salesperson first, while that’s not the case in the U.S.” During his career, he has worked with Americans, Europeans, Arabs and Kurds.
Al Helli is also the president of Roosevelt’s cyber security club, where students do independent cyber security projects to help them expand their learning in computers and the cyber security field.
Besides Al Helli’s diverse education and work background, he is also an actor, having taken acting classes at Chicago’s Second City and appeared in film projects, commercials and theater.
The only Iraqi immigrant student at Roosevelt, Al Helli earned his undergraduate degree in computer engineering from Al Mamoon University in Baghdad in 2010. He is currently working with an IT consulting company in Chicago while attending school. His goal is to work in technology management or sales for a multi-national United States corporation by combining his MBA and computer science master’s degree.